The Republican Governors Association and the Maine Republican Party last week issued a pair of scathing news statements and a fundraising appeal criticizing U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, for his recent vote supporting the federal farm bill.
In particular, the Republican governors and the Maine party focus on a provision in the 956-page bill that includes a fee increase on home heating oil.
“Does Maine really need a governor who thinks you don’t pay enough to heat your home, or who doesn’t think about the tens of thousands of elderly and low-income Mainers struggling to get by this winter?” read a release by the Maine Republican Party.
From the Republican governors: “The recent string of polar plunges and extremely cold weather has placed an added burden on many family budgets, especially when it comes to heating their homes. It is shocking that want-to-be governor and liberal Washington, D.C., congressman Mike Michaud would vote to increase the fees on home heating oil at this time. The working families of Maine can least afford to pay for this onerous tax.”
Both releases leave out some key details and context.
For starters, the farm bill provision prohibits oil companies from passing on the two-tenths of 1 cent fee to customers, or in this case, Maine families. The prohibition is on page 938 of the bill. It’s also in the Washington Times story referenced as a source for the Republican governors’ release.
Neither of the Republican releases mentions this nuance, nor another little fact: 162 House Republicans voted for the farm bill and 63 Republicans voted against it, while 103 Democrats opposed the farm bill and 89 voted for it.
In other words, “liberal” Michaud voted for a farm bill that a majority of House Republicans supported and a majority of Democrats opposed.
And then there’s this from BuzzFeed: The Republican Governors Association is running a similar ad in Pennsylvania against Democratic U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, who is challenging Republican Gov. Tom Corbett this year. The problem is that Corbett supports the farm bill and in a Feb. 4 press statement urged its passage.
Now, back to that fee and the bill provision that says it can’t be passed on to customers: Matthew Gagnon, a Mainer who works for the Republican Governors Association, tweeted last week that the fee pass-on prohibition was unenforceable and designed to give cover for lawmakers who voted for it. That defense is backed by the Heritage Foundation.
That may be true. So how much of a hit could oil companies deliver to their customers? According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average Maine home uses between 800 and 900 gallons of heating oil a year. Multiplying the higher estimate of 900 gallons by two-tenths of 1 cent shows a Mainer’s average annual oil bill would increase by $1.80.
The fee funds the National Oilheat Research Alliance, which is supposed to research and develop energy-efficient heating equipment. NORA, as it’s called, was authorized in 2000 under Democratic President Bill Clinton and reauthorized under Republican President George W. Bush.
There’s some debate over whether NORA has fulfilled its mission. In 2010, the U.S. Government Accountability Office said NORA needed more oversight. The reason: In 2008, NORA and its state affiliates spent 50 percent of the $318.5 million subsidy on “consumer education,” while spending much less, about 8 percent, on the research and development that’s central to its mission.
Those findings are a less sensational criticism of funding NORA, however.
NEW JACKSON-LEPAGE SKIRMISH
Senate Majority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, and the governor have a history. It’s not love. It’s war.
Many will recall that Jackson was the subject of the governor’s now infamous broadside last summer, during which he accused the Democratic senator of giving “it to the people without providing Vaseline” and accusing him of having a “black heart.”
Apparently the two had a brief exchange during an event held by the Maine State Chamber of Commerce last Thursday evening. According to people who attended, which included several Democratic lawmakers, LePage noticed that Jackson was chuckling when the governor was making his case against expanding Medicaid. The governor noticed and interrupted his speech to tell Jackson that he would know the facts about Medicaid if he wasn’t so busy campaigning for the 2nd Congressional District seat (which he is).
“Maybe it’s because I have a black heart,” Jackson responded.
LePage declined to say Jackson had a black heart (this time), but he did tell the Democrat that he couldn’t count.
He then continued with his speech.
THREAT TO WITHHOLD STATE BONDS
It may have been lost in the State House drama last week, but two days after LePage said during his State of the State address that he planned to invest $2 billion in the state’s transportation infrastructure, the governor threatened to withhold state bonds that would be used to pay for it.
A spokeswoman for LePage told the Portland Press Herald that the governor wouldn’t go to market if the Legislature approved a bill designed to prevent a $40 million cut in aid to cities and towns. LePage’s objection centers on a 2013 report by Moody’s Investors Service that noted that Maine needed to rebuild its rainy day fund for emergency expenditures.
The fund was drawn down by $27 million in 2011 when the Republican-led Legislature passed a $400 million tax cut and attempted to balance its budget. Now Democrats in the Legislature are pushing a bill that would tap the fund for $21 million in order to pay for municipal aid.
During the Chamber of Commerce dinner, LePage told attendees that he wouldn’t jeopardize the state’s credit rating if that bill passed, so he was going to withhold the bonds.
Although the governor’s threat may be grounded in fiscal policy, it’s also a shrewd political move designed to encourage Republican lawmakers to vote against the revenue sharing bill. Many House Republicans loudly objected to the funding mechanism in the municipal aid bill, but 30 of the 51 who voted last week supported it.
The defections show that Republican lawmakers are acutely aware of the political jeopardy of voting against funding for towns in their district, a vote that could result in either higher property taxes or decreased services.
By threatening to withhold bonding for transportation projects, LePage is taking the chance that some Republicans will come back to his side. That’s because the construction and transportation lobby can be very convincing, particularly if paving or bridge projects are delayed another summer – and in an election year.
Democrats are applying pressure, too.
“Here we go again. Governor LePage is threatening to hold economic investment hostage for no good reason,” said Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, the assistant House majority leader. “He is only making it harder for Republicans to do right by their communities. His message made business leaders very uneasy at the Maine State Chamber leadership summit dinner and at the roundtable discussions.”
This story has been corrected to note that McCabe is the assistant majority leader.
The Portland Press Herald’s Washington bureau chief, Kevin Miller, and Kennebec Journal Staff Writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: